Privacy under pressure
Ireland has been silent on mass surveillance of foreign citizens by US compared to other European countries
Edward Snowden revealed the Prism Programme, which allows the US National Security Agency access to the personal information of non-US persons from databases of tech companies such as Apple and Google
The round white tower in Capenhurst, Cheshire, looked mysterious.
Few in the area ever knew what it was for, except that it appeared almost overnight on land owned by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd.
It took a decade to emerge that it was built by British intelligence – GCHQ – and carefully situated between two BT microwave radio towers carrying telephone and data traffic.
It was the ideal location to intercept international telephone calls, emails or other electronic data from Ireland to the UK.
In 2008, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the British system of mass surveillance was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
“The Irish government never formally objected to that surveillance,” says TJ McIntyre, UCD law lecturer and chair of Digital Rights Ireland. “There is, I think, an unwillingness to rock the boat.”
This summer, there was a similar muted reaction to revelations regarding the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) sprawling surveillance and hoarding of communications data. European leaders were quick to voice their concern. There was full-throated opposition in Germany, for example, where the surveillance of citizens carries sinister echoes of the Stasi era.
Yet, in Ireland, the issue of mass-surveillance of citizens has barely registered as a political issue. Authorities here are reluctant to reveal information on the extent to which the State is snooping on its citizens or sharing information with other jurisdictions.
However, some figures provide an insight into the scale of surveillance or intelligence-gathering here.
One of the main pieces of legislation which provides access to private data is the Communications (Data Retention) Act 2011. This obliges all service providers to store logs of customers’ phone or internet records for two years.
Irish authorities – the Garda, Defence Forces or Revenue Commissioners – can access this information only for serious cases such as combating serious crime and terrorism.
Latest detailed figures show they have been doing it on a regular basis – 35 times a day, or 12,700 times during 2011.
This is about 30 times the number of requests by law enforcement agencies for these kinds of records in countries of a similar size, such as Austria.
Digital Rights Ireland argues that the law is in breach of human rights and disproportionate in its implementation in Ireland.
The Department of Justice, however, argues our data-retention laws are proportionate and strike the right balance between security needs and human rights. It has refused to disclose details about the extent to which it is sharing this data with outside jurisdictions.
“There is, of course, ongoing contact between law enforcement agencies internationally where crimes are being investigated which have a cross-jurisdictional dimension,” says a spokeswoman for Minister for Justice Alan Shatter.
“There are procedures in place under mutual assistance legislation to deal with requests from other jurisdictions for evidence in relation to specific cases, including retained data.”
It also says there are safeguards to protect any abuse. The operation of the Act is overseen by a High Court judge – Iarlaith O’Neill – who provides a report to the Oireachtas. His latest shows this oversight amounted to a visit to the Garda and other authorities on a single day in November last year.